eBook readers – the end of paper books?

2 June 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

They weigh 261 grams, hold 1000 books and are sucking the romance out of reading. ‘They’ll ‘change the way you read forever,’ according to the Borders website. But is this a good thing?

As an eBook reader salesperson, I get payed to say yes. And of course, they do have definite advantages. For starters, they’re portable. No more travelling with half my luggage allowance being taken up by books that I can’t bear to be separated from. No more lugging heavy, hardback textbooks to uni and back every day, and no more changing handbags every time I read a new book that’s bigger or smaller than the previous one.

They’re also equipped with a fancy new technology called e-ink. Reading an eBook is unlike reading from a computer or iPhone screen. Ignoring the plastic casing, it’s rather like looking at the page of a real, live, old-fashioned book. Except there’s a button to push when you want to turn the page.

One brand of eBook reader, Kobo (yes, it’s an anagram for book), was launched last week. It received great reviews in techno magazines and newspaper supplements. But like its name, it has had a mixed-up response by book lovers.

As far as practicality goes, it appears to be undeniably awesome. However, what about those notes in the columns that you just have to make? And when you’re reading in bed, you don’t want to roll over and snap the $200+ device, or have it rattling around in your luggage or handbag for that matter. When travelling, there’s always the chance that your valuable eBook reader, with your 1000 books loaded onto it, will go missing, get stolen, or break. And then what? Not to mention that reading on the beach will be a no-no now – sand and battery-operated devices aren’t friendly bedfellows.

And eBooks aren’t like other books either. With no printing costs, they’re cheaper, readily available, never out of stock and you can buy one without leaving your couch. There’s also no distribution costs, they produce less greenhouse gas emissions and require no warehouse storage.

It’s hard to put up a fight for books when the reasons for eBook reading are so compelling. But speaking to a number of curious bookstore customers about the new device, a common hesitation was that ‘they just don’t feel like a real book’. More importantly, real books require no batteries, plugs, cords, SD cards or chargers. Also, once a book is printed, that’s it. It can’t be changed or tampered with and your grandkids will be able to read the same words that you love so much.

Also, for many people, books have an irreplaceable charm that an eBook reader can’t replicate, no matter how paper-like the screen and how realistically inky the e-ink. Reading a book is often an escape from daily techno-driven life so the idea of looking at a screen can take some of the romance and escapism out of reading.

For the past 500 years, we’ve been doing just fine with the good old paper variety of books. And although for some the invention of an eBook reader is a relief, it scares the hell out of me. I just think about what has happened to newspapers since the internet was invented and feel a pang of anguish for my beloved books. Already, hundreds of newspapers around the world have collapsed as people turn to the internet for their news and it’s predicted that in 2043, newspapers will become extinct. God forbid the same thing happens to print books.

In defence of books, an eBook reader is ultimately just another gadget. The collection already stands at phones, iPods, game consoles, televisions, computers, home entertainment systems, toys, electronic photo frames, bread makers, fryers, espresso machines, rice cookers every bathroom appliance from electronic foot spas to massage machines. If we add much more to the list of devices supposedly making our lives easier, we’ll be living like The Jetsons and forgetting how to think for ourselves.

Reading an eBook is less of a crime than watching too much TV or spending too much time on facebook, which are both detrimental to our health and social relationships. Instead, reading is educational and not seen as antisocial. Changing the format of our books will not make them any less educational and worthwhile, merely part of the new technological revolution.

My arguments against eBooks aren’t sound. By all means, buy one of these fancy new devices and enjoy the numerous benefits. I though, will continue to read my real books and carefully find a place for each and every one on my already full bookshelves. Books will endure for a lot longer still, but it’s never too early to lament one of culture’s greatest gifts.

Kelly Theobald is bachelor of journalism honours student and a co-editor of Upstart. This piece was first published on her blog, Music Meets Girl.